Russia’s imports from India have fallen drastically since the Soviet era and overall trade has stagnated at about $7 to $8 billion. A stronger economic relationship could provide the much-needed glue to underpin the strategic and security linkages.

There was a time when many Russians could hum the tune Awara Hoon from Raj Kapoor’s immortal film and countless Indians looked to the erstwhile Soviet Union as a friend that could be counted on in the most trying of circumstances.

Cut to the present, and both India and Russia appear to be occupying shrinking spaces in the consciousness of each other’s citizens.

Of course, Russia continues to be the mainstay of India’s armed forces, supplying almost 68% of our weapons and hardware. It also plays a crucial role as the most important foreign supplier of technology and know-how to India’s civilian nuclear programme, with the atomic plants at Koodankulam standing testimony to Moscow’s support for New Delhi’s atomic energy plans.

The laudatory joint statements issued after the annual India-Russia summits, which began in 2000, would appear to suggest that everything is hunky-dory with bilateral relations, which are going from strength to strength. However, the informal summit between President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Russian coastal city of Sochi in May clearly suggested there was a need to put things back on track after ties were strained by a variety of factors.

As more and more young Indians from a more aspirational generation turned to the West for opportunities in the past two or three decades, there was a feeling that both India and Russia hadn’t done enough to address a sense of ennui and drift that affected their ties; a feeling that the relationship was chugging along largely on the momentum built up in the past and not looking for new directions.

There have been problems on a number of fronts in the recent past. Despite robust defence cooperation and big-ticket arms deals, India appears to have pulled out of an $8.63-billion dollar project with Russia for developing a fighter aircraft after sinking $295 million on preliminary designs.

In Afghanistan, India has been concerned by Russia’s efforts to rope in the Taliban to find a lasting solution to the war-torn country’s numerous problems. In the past, India and Russia jointly backed the Northern Alliance in its fight against the erstwhile Taliban regime, but latest reports suggest Russia is more concerned now about the possible emergence of a strong Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan.

New Delhi was also concerned by Moscow’s perceived silence on key issues, such as during the Doklam border standoff between India and China, especially at a time when China and Russia have more closely aligned their foreign policy positions. And then there was Russia’s move to strengthen relations with Pakistan, through the sales of military hardware such as gunship helicopters and the holding of the Druzhba (Friendship) wargames over the past two years.
Why India and Russia ties are important


◼ India-Russia military ties have evolved from a buyer-seller framework to one involving joint research, development and production of advanced defence technologies and systems
◼ S-400 air defence systems
◼ Joint cooperation and production of the BrahMos missile system
◼ Licenced production in India of Su-30-MKI aircraft and T-90 tanks
◼ Joint venture to manufacture Ka-226T helicopters
◼ Supply of MiG-29-K aircraft
◼ Supply of Kamov-31 and Mi-17 helicopters
◼ Upgrade of MiG-29 aircraft
◼ Supply of Multi-Barrel Rocket Launcher Smerch


◼ According to Russian Federal Customs Service, bilateral trade in 2016 amounted to $7.71 billion, with imports from Russia amounting to $5.32 billion

◼ Major exports from India Pharmaceuticals, tea, coffee, tobacco, machinery, mechanical appliances, organic chemicals, electrical machinery and equipment

◼ Major items of import Pearls, precious and semi-precious stones and metals, nuclear power equipment, electrical machinery and equipment, mineral oil and products, iron and steel, optical, precision and surgical equipment


Russia recognises India as a country with advanced nuclear technology with an impeccable non-proliferation record, and both the sides agreed to actively work towards localisation of manufacturing in India under "Make in India"

◼ The Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) is being built in India with Russian cooperation, with KKNPP Units 1 and 2 already operational

◼ According to Moscow-based think tank Valdai Club, President Vladimir Putin has plans to sell as many as 25 nuclear reactors to India

The overall India-Russia nuclear cooperation agreement includes:

◼ Transfer of nuclear power reactors Fuel supply agreement for both supplied reactors and other reactors operating in India, including both natural uranium and enriched uranium

◼ Right to process spent fuel Fuel supply assurance under all circumstances. In principle, agreement to transfer reprocessing technology and enriched technology

Some observers believe this move has gained further momentum under the stewardship of Zamir Kabulov, the Russian president’s envoy to Afghanistan, after the death in 2017 of the former envoy to India, Alexander Kadakin, a strong proponent of closer India-Russia ties.

Reacting to US President Donald Trump’s South Asia policy, Kabulov said that “Pakistan is the key regional player” that other countries should negotiate with. At the Heart of Asia meeting in December 2016, he went a step further and said Russia understands “India’s concerns but we can’t win the war on terror without Pakistani support”. Such public statements, as well as Pakistan’s overtures to Russia to join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, added to concerns in New Delhi.

However, after their meeting in Sochi in May, Modi and Putin provided guidelines for the development of what has been described by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov as a “special privileged strategic partnership”. Modi said the informal summit had added a new aspect to the bilateral relationship.

Clearly, the growing protectionism and unpredictability of the US administration under President Donald Trump was a factor in India’s efforts to reboot relations with both China and Russia through informal summits at the highest level. These moves are also aimed at strengthening a multi-polar world order.

This can be done through several multi-polar forums of which both India and Russia are a part, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and Brics (a grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). And while India continues to open up its defence market to Western suppliers, big-ticket purchases such as the planned acquisition of the S-400 missile defence system — which is set to go ahead despite the threat of US sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) —should reassure Russia that it will remain the biggest supplier of military hardware for the foreseeable future.

Hopefully, when the two countries hold their formal annual summit, they will take a long hard look at the problem areas that are holding back their relations instead of focusing on issues where cooperation is already strong such as defence and civil nuclear cooperation.

Perhaps the two sides will take the opportunity to have heart-to-heart talks on issues that continue to be irritants, such as the situation in Afghanistan and Russia’s minuscule but growing military cooperation with Pakistan. It would perhaps benefit both sides if they demarcated clear “red lines” on such hot-button issues so that future handling of these subjects can be much easier.

Both sides stand to gain from greater clarity and less ambiguity on such issues. Also, the two sides will have to think out of the box to boost people-to-people contacts and trade and commerce.

Russia’s imports from India have fallen drastically since the Soviet era and overall trade has stagnated at about $7 to $8 billion. A stronger economic relationship could provide the much-needed glue to underpin the strategic and security linkages.